The Meiji Restoration in 1868 opened Japan’s ports again to foreign trade after 200 years of international isolation. Soon Japanese art and artefacts found their way to Paris and London which resulted in a craze known as Japonisme. Ukiyo-e, particularly the works of the masters, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kitagawa Utamaro, would have a profound effect upon the first of all modern art movements, Impressionism.
Utamaro was renowned for his psychologically astute portraits of courtesans. Employing sophisticated compositional techniques of partial views, striking mannerism and subtle gradients of light and shade, Utamaro was collected by many luminaries of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, notably Degas, Gaugain and Toulouse-Lautrec. The serenity of his female studies were clearly a major influence on the ground-breaking female artist Mary Cassett.
Utamaro, like every ukiyo-e artist produced a large body of shunga. His sensitivity to female beauty combined with the intimacy and tenderness of many of the scenes portrayed rank among the finest examples of erotic art.
Utamaro-Three Beauties of the Present Day
Takashima Ohisa using two mirrors to observe her coiffure night of the Asakusa Marketing Festival
Katsushika Hokusai is undoubtedly the most famous ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world)artist of the Edo period. Not only was he responsible for the single most famous Japanese artwork, The Great Wave OffKanagawa, his TheDream of the Fisherman’s Wifeis the most widely known example of shunga (spring pictures), the astounding Japanese erotic art that flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries.
What is striking about ukiyo-e is that every major artist of the period produced shunga, including Eiri, Utamaro, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Eisen. Although shunga was subject to periodic censorship by the shogunate, this didn’t seem to affect its widespread popularity among all classes of Japanese society. It was also a highly profitable venture for the artist who could supplement their income for months with a single painting.
Below are examples of Hokusai’s work, including The Great Wave Off Kanagawa as well as some brillitantly executed shunga.
The rather evocatively named Apollonia Saintclair (presumably a pseudonym that conjures up images, in my mind, at least, of a Bond villainess and a vixen of a heroine in a French libertine novel) provocative and very erotic illustrations have gathered a huge and obsessive following on Instagram and Tumblr for the mysterious, secretive artist.
Saintclair’s veritable pornocupia of fantasies, kinks and fetishes locate sex and desire as the nexus of a wide range of human emotions. Her black and white images are suggestive of pulp, noir and, on occasion, the gleeful decadence of Beardsley and Von Bayros; while shot through with a delightful insolent wit that ranges from the mischievous to the macabre.
In her interviews Saintclair has expressed her admiration for the pioneering photographer and artist Man Ray who was noted for his use of visual puns and rhymes, which quickly became a hallmark of early Surrealism. In drawings such as La Bonne Poire (The Juicy Fruit) and La Trouvaille (There you are), Saintclair expands (in conjuration with their disingenuous titles) the potential of the visual pun that elicits the shock of suppressed recognition from the viewer. The startling La Mort Douce(The Sweet Death) with its inversion of the Biblical tale of St John the Baptist and Salome has, however, far more sinister connotations.
Although obviously well-versed in art history in general and erotic art in particular, and while her work contains echoes of everything from Clovis Trouille’s sultry, sapphic nuns to the ceaseless caresses of octopi in Japanese shunga, Saintclair has developed a unique style with a distinctive contemporary take on eroticism from a vantaged (and still a rarity in erotic art) female perspective.
The English philosopher Francis Bacon is quoted as saying the job of the artist is to always deepen the mystery. While there is nothing more mysterious in human experience than sex, involving as it does the body, mind and soul in conjuration like no other comparable activity, the erotic artist is placed in a paradoxical position. After all, the role of erotic art is, by its very definition, to show and tell. Revealing too much strips away the mystery and the initial charm is soon lost. Revealing too little, however, means it isn’t erotic art. Apollonia Saintclair performs that miraculous balancing act of showing us just enough to deepen the mystery and leaving us longing for more.
Hokusai’s ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) woodcut design for the three volume collection of erotic tales Young Pines from 1814 is the most famous example of shunga (pictures of spring; spring being a euphemism for sex) created by the one of the masters of Japanese art from the Edo period.
Depicting a shell diver being caressed intimately by two octopi, the surrounding text tells of the mutual pleasure experienced by both the woman and the octopi. However when the image was first seen in the West it was without a sufficient understanding of the accompanying text and critics, including Edmond de Goncourt interpreted the design as representing a non consensual act.
The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife influenced Felicien Rops, Rodin and Pablo Picasso who painted his own version in 1903, and along with other shuga shaped the perception of the exotically other Far East as an ultra-sophisticated, decadent playground, where eroticism had been refined by every possible means into a deviant art-form. The ultimate expression of this Orientalizing tendency can be found in Octave Mirbeau’s opiated fantasy of a mythic China in Le Jardin des supplices (The Torture Garden). In Japan it has been hugely influential and has spawned a whole sub-genre within anime and manga.